It is often declared throughout scripture that it is God who created the world around us. You name it, God created it: sun, moon, stars, seas, mountains, trees and every creeping thing. In one of the letters of the apostle Paul, he made a unique and interesting claim about what God has created: not only did he create everything we see, but things we do not see – “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Colossians 1:16)
As a person with a science background, I like to fill in that word “invisible” with all kinds of unseen things (e.g., cells, organelles, molecules, atoms), but what might Paul have been referring to when he used that word? Many commentators will suggest that Paul was referring to things in the spiritual realm, but could he have been thinking of atoms when he wrote this? They did not know about such things back then, right? Or did they? While it is true that our current model of the atom is of very recent development, the idea of atoms has been around for some time.
The Greek philosopher, Democritus (c. 460-370 BC), proposed that matter could not be divided infinitely – that as you continually divide a substance you eventually would arrive at a particle which is uncuttable – the meaning of the word “atom” which he coined. He further suggested that these atoms were uncreated and eternal, and are constantly in motion. Democritus believed the nature of an object was determined by the types of atoms of which the object is composed. This is remarkably close to our current understanding, but Democritus went on to suggest differently than we think now that there are an infinite number of atoms, and an infinite number of types of atoms.
Such materialist claims have serious implications. If atoms are eternal (not created), there is no transcendent being which has power and authority over them – nor over human beings. If the atoms are constantly moving, what motivates their activity? Democritus surmised that atoms follow predictable paths. Likewise, because all our motion is based on the motion of atoms, our activities are also predictable – everything we think, say and do is determined – there is no free will. Ultimately, humans are not responsible for their actions because all their behavior is determined, and there is no transcendent god to whom we are responsible.
Epicurus (270-241 BC) based much of his teachings on those of Democritus, but balked at these deterministic implications. In order to preserve notions of free will, he deviated from the teachings of Democritus by suggesting that atoms could “swerve” – they could deviate from their particular path. Even with a belief in free will, this view of the universe draws the conclusion that life has no meaning or purpose. The Epicureans thought the best one could do in life was to fill it with pleasure without interfering with the pleasure of others.
Later on, a philosopher and supporter of Epicurus by the name of Lucretius (99-55 BC), was more pessimistic about free will. He thought the “swerves” of atoms were random. This could explain the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of higher order objects, but the movement of atoms essentially remained predictable and essentially determinant. On this account, Lucretius surmised that any impression we may have of a mind or a soul is simply illusory – minds or souls are simply collections of atoms as well. But how could you choose a life of Epicurean pleasure if there is no free will? Why does it matter if you offend anyone or cause suffering in the process of pleasure seeking if there is no ultimate accountability?
The point of this brief historical jaunt is that these ideas about atoms would very likely have been known by the Apostle Paul because this philosophical school was contemporary to Paul. We read in the book of Acts that Paul spent considerable time in Greece and Asia Minor. When in Athens, Paul interacted with both Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. This is why I think Paul’s reference to “invisibles” at least includes atoms. When Paul spoke with these philosophers, he was aware of not only the suggested make-up of the material world, but of the implications which follow from a strictly materialist view, and he argued against them.
Paul argued that atoms have not eternally existed. This is understood when Paul goes on to write, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) This is also recorded in his discussions with the philosophers in the book of Acts where he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). Atoms had a beginning, and there is more to living things than just atoms – God is both the creator and sustainer of atoms, and us.
He also argued against the self-motivating ability of atoms and rejected a deterministic view of the universe when he said, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:26-28). God is engaged in human history, but he leaves open the possibility of free will through which people may choose to seek and find the God who made them.
We should pay attention to this interaction because these same materialist ideas, while they fell out of favor for a while, were resurrected during the Enlightenment period, and are present in our contemporary culture under the brand of “naturalism”. While the current understanding of the atom is much more nuanced, today’s materialist will come to the same conclusions they did two thousand years ago: we live in a deterministic world where God does not exist, there is no ultimate authority or responsibility for actions, and there is no purpose or meaning in life (except for the one you imagine for yourself so you can get out of bed in the morning).
Instead of developing schools of philosophy like they did two thousand years ago, today’s materialists have hitched themselves to the enterprise of science and strive to convince the public that a materialist view is prerequisite to scientific understanding. Richard Lewontin is known for stating that, “we [the scientific community] cannot let a divine foot in the door.” However, there is nothing within science itself which justifies such a view, and science is incapable of affirming a materialist world view.
Materialism is not grounded in any empirical data, but instead is an intellectual choice to view the universe in this way. Philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.”
To presume that the only way we can explain the universe is strictly through natural causes is to unnecessarily restrict our ability to do so. If there are aspects of nature which truly resulted from a supernatural intervention in nature, materialists have cut themselves off from a complete understanding of the universe. The scientific objective from the standpoint of Christian theism is to understand (to the best of our ability) how things in the universe came into existence and how things in the universe work. The theist has access to every possible explanation available to the materialist, but has more options from which to build an explanatory framework of the universe.
In short, what we think about matter matters. If we, like the apostle Paul, hold that God made invisibles like atoms, then we are trading in an idea which opens the doors for a life of hope, meaning and purpose. To think otherwise leaves one with nothing but despair.
 Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons”, New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1997.
 Nagel, Thomas, The Last Word, pp. 130–131, Oxford University Press, 1997.
1 thought on “Creating Invisibles”
“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” by Tennyson reflects the despair in your final statement: “To think otherwise leaves one with nothing but despair.”